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The Verdict of History – Cherchez La Femme

Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965, fifty years ago next month. Extraordinarily, it was exactly the same date as his father’s death in 1895 and one that Winston himself had predicted for his own death. I was there, like thousands of others, queueing to pay my respects on a freezing January day, a day I will never forget.

But, however sure Churchill himself may have been of the day he’d leave the world, his success while in it could never have been predicted with the same certainty. Other than by his mother, the American society beauty, Jennie Jerome, who was unwavering in her support and belief in her son’s destiny.  Jennie, however, died in 1921, twenty years before her son became prime minister and led Britain to victory over the Nazis in World War Two. Yes, he was born into a world of privilege and money – his ancestor was the 1st Duke Marlborough and his grandmother, the 7th Duchess, lived at Blenheim, Britain’s most magnificent palace. Yet his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was merely the second son so inherited neither money nor dukedom while his mother, although often described as a dollar princess, had neither dollars nor did she become a princess. Winston had to make his own way in life and his brief period in office as Home Secretary (1910-11) was justifiably considered a failure, ending with a controversial visit to the siege of Sydney Street.  A few years later, as 1st Lord of the Admiralty, he was largely responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli and the intense criticism was so great that his wife, Clemmie, said afterwards she thought he ‘might die of grief’ It was Jennie who then went to visit him at his home in the country bolstering his fragile belief in himself and persuading him he still had a rosy future in politics. It was Jennie who, in 1895, after his violent and abusive father died when Winston was 20, sent him to meet the Irish American orator William Bourke Cockran, on whom he was to model his own style.

Throughout Winston Churchill’s long period in the wilderness, (1929-39) when he faced scorn, criticism and derision, if he continued to believe in his ‘lucky star’ and have courage that it was his ‘destiny’ to lead-it was only because his mother had so fiercely instilled this faith in himself. And in 1940, aged 65, he became Prime Minister and single-mindedly pursued the fight against Nazi Germany. Although he lost the first post-war election in 1945 as Britons believed they had been fighting for a new world and did not want a reminder of the old, twenty years later, when he died, there was a national outpouring of love and gratitude, as if pent-up emotions that had not been expressed since 1945, could now be released. It was a chance for many of those born after the war, baby boomers just like me to learn for the first time about who was Winston Churchill, saviour of the nation?

I grew up in a family which considered Churchill close to God and one of my first adult memories was being given a day off school on a snowy and bitterly cold January day in order to wait in line, one of 321,360, who wanted to pay my respects to this God-like figure by walking around the coffin containing his body at the lying in state in Westminster Hall. For many, including my father who had crossed the channel in a tank on D day plus one, this was an opportunity to re-connect with those with whom they had served and fought and seen injured for the last five or so years. For many, the war years had not been discussed in the intervening 20 years as jobs had to be found, relationships repaired and the business of life taken up. Of course I couldn’t fully understand any of that at the time. And yet I can remember what I was wearing on that day – my school tweed coat. I didn’t have another because in 1965 one winter coat was all any child possessed. And I remember the solemnity of the day, an emotion that survived for the next 40 years which, I accept, fuelled my desire to write a biography of Jennie, a woman largely dismissed in the intervening years as a socialite, a mongrel, a woman who used her son for her own vainglorious ends, a woman who had 200 lovers. And more.

However, reputations come and go, the mother’s as well as the son’s and seventy years after the end of World War 11, many now criticise Churchill as a warmonger (unjust), as a disastrous peacetime politician (just), a man who had supported the fickle pro-German British King, Edward 8th (foolish), and a father who was unable to bestow the love and understanding his children so desperately craved (both just and unjust). Winston Churchill was a politician who might have been consigned to the dumpbin of history had it not been for those critical five years from 1940- 45. But what five years.

And as I examined his mother’s life the more I realised that hers was the vital formative influence propelling him towards political leadership, instilling in him the belief that, as a half American, he was uniquely well placed to make a compelling speech addressing both Houses of Congress, summoning up his mother’s memory cherished across the ‘Vale of Years’ to strengthen Roosevelt’s resolve to bring the USA into the War. It was she who encouraged him to make speeches that can hold the attention of a room, she who acted as his personal tutor sending him a constant stream of books including Henry Fawcett’s manual of Political Economy, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Plato’s Republic.  It was she taught him to appreciate art as well as humour. She who told him how hard he must work as ‘for a man life means work if he means to succeed’.  Without Jennie, Winston would have remained a half formed thing, more Blenheim and bluster without substance and grit. But without Winston the events of the 1940’s are too appalling to contemplate.

So, half a century following the great man’s death, as reassessment justifiably takes its toll, surely it is to the mother one should turn first and raise a glass in thanks to Jenn

Prison and Fashion – an unlikely link?

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

As I start to write segments of my book on Paris in wartime (and beyond) it’s hard to get prisons out of my mind – especially Nazi ones. On Monday I interviewed the surviving daughter of a French resistante, one of the bravest imaginable who even tried to escape from Ravensbruck, possibly the only woman ever to try and escape from this particular hell hole. But she was re-captured and made to pay cruelly. Amazingly, she survived her punishment of torture, solitary confinement and a diet verging on starvation and was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945. One of the most extraordinary documents which also survived, and which her daughter showed me during our interview, was her mother’s prison ID card, stamped with the dates of her various prison stays mostly in France but culminating in Ravensbruck. The barbarity is so hard to believe that these pieces of tangible evidence are more important than ever.

Before her arrest, this sophisticated Parisienne was noted for wearing elegant Lanvin suits while undertaking highly dangerous missions. And the unlikely link between prison and fashion, which will be threaded through my book, (pun intended), continued the day after this moving interview when I visited the unusual exhibition of works by the SOE secret agent and artist, Brian Stonehouse at the London gallery, Abbott and Holder until December 23rd.

http://www.abbottandholder-thelist.co.uk/brian-stonehouse-vogue/

Stonehouse, who moved to the US after the war where he became a Vogue illustrator, (one of the last before photography took over completely), may not be a household name in the pantheon of British secret agents. However, he played a critical role at one point in post war SOE history as his artistic skills enabled him to help identity four women he had seen hours before they were sent to their deaths at Natzweiler-Strutof camp, where he too was being held in the summer of 1944.  He had noticed the women’s arrival and, after the war, dredged his memory to produce sketches of them in order to try and help with identifying them. Within hours of their arrival, the women were given lethal injections of phenol in an attempt to drug them before their bodies were thrown in the crematorium. But one of the women, although drugged, apparently woke up when her body was flung into the furnace and began to struggle just enough to scratch the face of the German executioner forcing her back in. It is believed that this brave woman who resisted until the last, was Vera Leigh, a milliner before the war and another true Parisienne.

Stonehouse, a remarkable man who survived two and a half years of torture and solitary confinement himself in a variety of camps, is now being celebrated in London for his artistic talent. The Imperial War Museum holds many of the drawings he made on the liberation of Dachau and of the War Crimes Tribunal but these fashion sketches show he was a man of many talents. As for the numerous women whose stories I am unearthing, their bravery was second to none but they still cared about how they look. From the moment war was declared in September 1939 fashion was viewed in France at least as yet another small way in which German dominance could be resisted.

There is a book to accompany the exhibition – Brian Stonehouse: Artist,  Soldier, War Hero, Fashion Illustrator – by Frederic A. Sharf with Michelle Finamore

A Dying Breed

It’s been a dreadful week for deaths. It always is, I know. But recently, I daren’t open the obits page for fear I’ll meet someone I know or someone I was hoping to interview but left it too late.  There are always far too many obituaries of men and women who die long before their time such as the beautiful and talented Candida Lycett Green, who has just died at 71 from pancreatic cancer. We mourn them all.  But often it is reading the obituaries of women when I let out the deepest sigh…oh why didn’t I know about them when they were alive? Why did they keep all these amazing life experiences so quiet?

The three women whose obituaries have filled my thoughts this week were not exactly young nor unknown. Helen Bamber, aged 89, Aline Berlin, 99, and Philippine de Rothschild, a mere 80, had all lived full and rich lives. Of course for the loved ones and close family there is always a hole left whatever the age of the dead person as well as the hope that the person might just have lived for this birth or that announcement. But, overall, these three women should be celebrated not merely for having lived life to the full but for brushing as closely against evil as it is possible yet triumphing over it.  They embraced life and refused to succumb to bitterness.

I had the privilege of meeting Helen Bamber, a woman who never knew any other life apart from helping others in the direst circumstances. From the age of 20 she dedicated her life to those who suffered torture, trafficking, slavery and other forms of extreme human cruelty. She volunteered to go out to Germany in 1945 immediately after the war and work with the Jewish relief unit under the auspices of the United Nations Relief Agency in the just liberated concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. She spent two horrific years there and promised the dying that she would bear witness to their torment. They could not have imagined how hard she would work to do that over the next seventy years. As she travelled around the world to document torture and its aftermath in many countries those who met her said she seemed determined to help everybody. In 1985 Helen founded the Medical Foundation for the care of Victims of Torture, a pioneering organisation as nobody until then had time to listen. It’s an appalling reflection of the 20th century that the need for her work increased.  She married and had two children of her own but amazingly was never overcome by the harrowing stories and continued helping others almost until the end. There is more here:

http://www.helenbamber.org/

Aline Berlin grew up in an immensely wealthy Russian Jewish family in Paris but privilege did not shield her personal tragedy when her first husband, Andre Strauss, died of cancer five years after they were married leaving her a widow with a young son just as war with Germany loomed. She was ‘lucky’ in that she and her family could pay for exit visas from the American consulate in Nice and she escaped from France just in time spending the rest of the War in North America. She married a second time, to Hans Halban, a French nuclear physicist who had also managed to escape France and although the couple had two sons this was not an entirely happy marriage. In 1956 Aline married Isaiah Berlin, the academic and philosopher who had been in love with her for some years. The Berlins were married for more than 40 years and together enjoyed a life devoted to music, books and travel.

While in New York Aline had befriended Ceçile de Rothschild, another French emigrée, and the women played golf together – something at which Aline excelled. But another Rothschild, a cousin by marriage, was not so lucky. Philippine de Rothschild was ten years old when she saw her mother, the beautiful Elisabeth Pelettier de Chambure, a Catholic living apart from her husband Philip de Rothschild, arrested by the Nazis in her home and taken to Ravensbrück where she was killed. Elisabeth is the only member of the Rothschild family killed in the Holocaust. After the War, Philippine became first an actress working at the Comédie Française and then took over and expanded the family wine business, Chateau Mouton Rothschild becoming a world renowned expert in the business.  She commissioned well known artists to design labels – the Prince of Wales obliged for a 2004 vintage – paying them for the privilege of having their work attached to a bottle with ten cases of selected Rothschild wines.

Next week’s obituaries may reveal another crop of extraordinary women – and no doubt some men too – who hid their lights. Of course none of us wants another war in order to prove ourselves but I can’t help wondering if my own generation will yield obituaries half as interesting as this generation now leaving us.

 

The Pram in the Hall – Enid Bagnold Writer and Mother

gaudier-brzeskaA talk I gave recently at the October Gallery – The annual Persephone Lecture

I have never thought it a particular advantage to know the person you are writing about. You will have known them at a particular time or in a particular role. Above all, for a child to write about a parent seems to me a recipe for disaster – unless you state from the outset this is a very one sided memoir. Children are often the least useful witnesses a biographer can find. Yet, try as we might to be objective, I think biographers too should plead guilty to subjectivity, to seeing their subject through a particular prism. Perhaps they lived in the same village, studied at the same college but in particular I believe that what we really cannot shed is the age we are at time of writing. However much I think I can imagine a particular emotion, or I am sure that I know what a particular experience must have felt like, I want to take this opportunity – openly and unequivocally – to admit my failure. Only now, having hit 60 myself and living through an age-obsessed time when the secret of eternal youth is promised from many quarters, do I really understand what Enid Bagnold – not exactly a vain woman but one who cared about her looks – meant when she wrote that one of the few counterbalancing factors for the pain of growing old was that, thanks to fading eyesight, she couldn’t really see all those wrinkles and grey hairs that worried her so much in anticipation – (although true to her novelist’s calling, exaggerating to make her point – she is not being wholly truthful even here as of course magnifying mirrors were around in the 1980’s.) But I can now at least understand why she wanted to have a face lift (and how radical was that in the 1970’s) and I admire her honesty and truthfulness about discussing this far more today than I could possibly have 30 years ago.

And here she is as Gaudier Brzeska saw her on the eve of WW One

So, I am immensely grateful to Persephone for giving me this second chance to look at Bagnold thirty years on. And of course to Faber Finds for republishing my biography. I’m relieved to say I haven’t found a different person or a different story. But the focus, if I were writing the book today, might be slightly sharper here or hazier there. The emphasis on different aspects of her life might be weightier here and pruned there. Actually I don’t think it would be a better book (I would say that wouldn’t I?) But I now understand in a wholly empathetic way why, in her 60’s and 70’s, she was still burning with ambition to write a successful play. I remember, with shame, a feeling in my 20’s that when I reached 60 I’d be happy to stay at home quietly knitting whereas in fact my desire to travel, to meet people, to achieve and to experience life is not only unabated it is in some ways greater as I am acutely aware of the limited time left and…and I can see why it risks appearing frankly unbecoming in someone of my years just as it did for Enid.

No, I think, or at least hope, that writing the biography of EB in my late 20’s gave me a youthful enthusiasm which suited my subject and gave me a perspective on her young days and early married life I might not have had now. I was rooting for her when the boyfriend didn’t work out (after all it wasn#39;t so far away for me that I could still remember those rejections, sharp longings and early fumblings) but most of all I deeply identified…and I say this fully aware of strictures by that great biographer Richard Holmes that self-identity with one’s subject is the first crime of a biographer…with her passionate desire to have babies and having had them to have more of them and then to be the best mother there had ever been. I understood the passionate and oh so unexpected flood of love when her first golden-haired child arrived – love neither she, nor I, knew we possessed. And then she found it a second time for her equally beautiful son – just as I was to do. My pigeon pair as I learned. The Squire, her truly great novel not just about motherhood but about what she believed it meant to be a woman, springs from that deep well of unconditional love. Enid wanted to go on and on, bringing up such treasures.

The Clifford Sisters for Femail Writer Enid Bagnold picturedSo let’s go back a bit. Who was Enid Bagnold? In her own sparkling and idiosyncratic autobiography (entitled I am tempted to say with no artifice but of course there was artifice aplenty) ‘Enid Bagnold’s autobiography’, published in 1969, she writes that she was driven to explore family history because of her fascination that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”. Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her writing (she once described her own prose as ‘beautiful vomit’) but what she is also revealing is an intense fascination with herself. Not unusual for ‘a born writer!’ as she called herself. When I came to research her biography I found all her notebooks and scrapbooks were embellished with directions/ guidance for a putative biographer – me! Pictures of the Franco-Romanian princes, Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco, for example, princes who had been close friends of Proust, were annotated with helpful comments like ‘this is the brother who committed suicide’ or ‘here we are visiting a church together’!

But Antoine Bibesco, the man she always adored, was never going to marry the plump and rather jolly Miss Enid Bagnold, daughter of Colonel Arthur Bagnold, a man who was as much engineer as soldier, and the former Miss Ethel Alger. They were, as her parents regularly reminded her, gentlefolk, and had been for generations. Enid was constantly testing her parents either by her requests to paint nude models when she studied with Sickert (turned down) or her request to visit the old roué journalist Frank Harris, her editor as well as lover, when he was in Brixton prison – agreed to “because people of breeding do not abandon a friend in need,” her father told her. Read More

Urgent: Message to Girls Leaving School. Find your inner rod of steel

Recently I gave a talk to almost 800 people…girls, staff, pupils and parents at St Mary’s Calne, the Wiltshire Girls’ School celebrating  its 140th birthday this year with a new, dynamic American headmistress.  Reflecting on wishy washy prizegivings of my youth, I wanted to strike as stirring a note as possible because we all know the stats; girls seem to outperform boys in schools, universities and early training courses. Yet why are more of them not running major Global Corporations, Banks or Arts Institutions? What happens?  Some blame all- girl schools for feeding their pupils a diet of so called skills which ultimately damage them in the workplace. “They are not so much skills, I think, as dating tips for women who will grow to live – or, if you prefer, die – by the rules.” Here is what Tanya Gold says:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/22/baking-botox-traps-road-womens-emancipation

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